Like most musicians who suddenly burst onto the scene, Rudresh Mahanthappa has been working on his craft for a long time. His reputation as an innovative jazz musician and composer took a major leap from the realms of the cognoscenti into popular culture with the enthusiastic reception of his 2008 album, Kinsmen. That album featured the Dakshina Ensemble, co-led by Mahanthappa and fellow alto saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath. Kinsmen, which melds jazz and South Indian Carnatic music, ended up on more than twenty top jazz CDs of 2008 lists, and the prestigious Downbeat International Critics Poll named Mahanthappa a rising jazz artist and alto saxophonist of 2009. He also became the subject of numerous features in The New York Times, the New Yorker, and Rolling Stone. That's how the message used to come down from the cognoscenti to us hoi polloi and, sometimes, even in this age of viral marketing, it continues to do so — and sometimes, it still works.
The sudden success of Mahanthappa after the release of Kinsmen was the product of three years of work with Gopalnath, a living legend of Indian music, and twenty years of musical exploration that began with Mahanthappa's collaborations with pianist Vijay Iyer, another American jazz musician of Indian heritage, in 1996. Their 2006 release, Raw Materials, exhibited their strengths as composers and improvisers in a stripped-down setting, just piano and saxophone, in which the musical source materials blended to create something original. Mahanthappa's musical efforts are decidedly peripatetic; refusing to limit himself to one musical setting or style, he typically splits his time as a composer and performer. His web site, RudreshM.com, lists eight ongoing projects: four featuring Indian-jazz plus his "flagship" ensemble the Rudresh Mahanthappa Quartet, two jazz trios, and a malleable group co-led with alto saxophonist Steve Lehman.
One of Mahanthappa's Indian-jazz ensembles will be featured Saturday night, March 13, as the latest installment of SFJAZZ's "Global Village" series. The Indo-Pak Coalition is a trio that includes two of Mahanthappa's long-time sidemen: Pakistani-American guitarist Rez Abassi and Dan Weiss on tabla. The Indo-Pak Coalition presents a different spin on the blending of Indian music and jazz than Dakshina Ensemble. With the Dakshina Ensemble, the stage (and aural space) was split: a four-piece jazz ensemble on one side, a three-piece Carnatic ensemble on the other, and the music came as the product of a dialogue between two groups. The musical styles blended magnificently with much credit due to Mahanthappa's skill as a composer and the groundwork laid by Kadri Gopalnath in developing a Carnatic style of saxophone. The Indo-Pak Coalition presents Indian-jazz in a very different setting with very different goals. The Indian musical component of the Dakshina Ensemble was made up of Gopalnath on alto saxophone, A. Kanyakumari on violin, and Poovalur Sriji on mridangam (South Indian barrel drum) — all formally trained in the Carnatic tradition of South India. The only member of the Indo-Pak Coalition with formal training in South Asian music is drummer Dan Weiss of Brooklyn, who plays the only South Asian instrument in the ensemble: the tabla (a set of two hand drums). Despite the highly arranged sections — the heads of tunes frequently involve fast unison passages — the music created by the Indo-Pak Coalition feels less structured and more intimate than the dialogues created by the Dakshina Ensemble. The conversation is less call-and-response; more overlapping like the intertwining phrases of close friends.
The best way to get a taste of the music of the Indo-Pak Coalition is through its album Apti, released in 2008, a month after Dakshina Ensemble's Kinsmen. The long rhythmic cycles of most of the songs Mahanthappa composed for Apti create the framework for the stylistic ambiguity that is key to its music. On the opening track, "Looking Out, Looking In," Abassi plays slow arpeggios under Mahanthappa's soloing alto — a non-typical guitar accompaniment that is reminiscent of a tamboura drone. The second track, "Apti," features a series of fast unison phrases on guitar and alto that bring jazz phrasing (and accidentals) to Hindustani melodies but makes nods to a Hindustani aesthetic, including several showy tihi-like phrase enders (a tihi is a triplet figure repeated three times). The unison phrases set up long solos by Mahanthappa and Abassi that are solidly post-bop but driven by Weiss' tabla. The sound of the tabla creates the least ambiguity, injecting a South Asian reference into otherwise musically ambiguous moments. That is except for Weiss' solo in "ITT" which evokes the sounds of a jazz drum set before deftly mixing them with the sounds of a tabla solo. Throughout, the album is a rewarding musical experience, and in its own way as refreshing as Kinsmen. Still, as with most jazz albums, Apti can only give a taste of what the Indo-Pak Coalition has to offer live. For that, check out the band at the Swedish American Hall on March 13.